Author's note: Obligatory disclaimer of ownership of any and all characters relating to FF VIII. More notes at the end of the fic.

MISSION ZERO

I.

Squall Leonhart, World Savior, Commander of Balamb Garden and Sorceress Rinoa's Knight, had a problem, one that threatened the very underpinnings of his existence, not to mention his marriage to the aforementioned sorceress.

The problem? It was August.

Until he'd awakened that morning to the fact that it was August first and a Monday, things had been going pretty well for him. He and Rinoa had been married for just a few weeks, had in fact, just returned from their honeymoon the week before.

They were just starting to settle into their lives together, and so far, things were fine. Better than fine; they were wonderful. He was thoroughly enjoying being married to Rinoa, a fact that actually surprised him a little. He never expected to use the word "wonderful" to describe his life. If anything, he figured the word would be "short".

But as he stared glumly at his calendar, he could feel storm clouds gathering on the horizon, threatening to blow apart his perfect happiness. The date he'd dreaded all year was rapidly approaching, and in the rush and confusion of wedding preparations, the wedding itself and the honeymoon, he'd completely forgotten about it. Now, there was no time to arrange an escape, an excuse to be elsewhere when that date arrived. Not one that would be believed, anyway.

There's still time, Squall thought desperately. I have twenty-two days. Surely SOMEBODY will need the SeeD commander to negotiate something, or settle something? Right? Maybe there's a diplomatic thing going on I can volunteer for? A nest of monsters to clear out?

He searched his appointment calendar but Quistis had been too damn efficient in his absence and all of the SeeDs out on assignment were being disgustingly effective at their jobs.

In short…

"I'm doomed." Squall groaned, looking at the calendar again and glaring at the offending date that mocked him with its very existence.

August 23. His birthday.


Rinoa stretched and sighed, rolling over to study the empty space beside her that Squall had occupied hours before. She remembered him pulling her to him for a gentle kiss and a whispered, "good morning," before he reluctantly left her side to shower and go to work.

A mental caress from him and an "I love you," as he left gave her sweet dreams for the remainder of the morning, until she also had to get up and be about her business.

As she got out of bed and showered, she reflected that the last few weeks since the wedding had been perfectly lovely, though they were both still adjusting to actually being married.

Oh, there were little snags here and there; Squall's neatness fetish being one of them, but nothing that she couldn't live with. And she had to admit, the concept of putting things away where they belonged once finished with them did make them easier to find later on. And after overhearing some women at a café a few days ago complaining about what slobs their husbands were, she found herself smugly relieved that she'd never have to endure the horrors of coming home to an apartment strewn with dirty socks and underwear.

For the most part however, Rinoa still floated about in the rosy glow of the newly married, feeling as though she was adrift in a waking dream. Her real-life romance didn't necessarily follow the formula of those fairytale fantasies that young girls dream of; it had taken a bit more work before her knight in shining armor had come around and fallen in love with her. But fall he did and she with him…and she couldn't be happier.

Drying her hair as she dressed, she glanced at the calendar. August first. Then her eyes tracked down until she reached a particular date. The twenty-third. Squall's birthday.

This time, she was determined to celebrate it with him. Each year previously, something had come up and he'd be away when the fateful day arrived, leaving her and his friends disappointed in their efforts to commemorate the occasion. After the third time that happened, Rinoa began to see the pattern and suspect it was being done deliberately. By fate at very least if not by Squall himself…though she suspected the latter.

Not this time. Rinoa wasn't fool enough to foist a big surprise party with all of his friends in attendance on him this early in their relationship. Yeah, they'd been together since defeating Ultimecia three years ago, but they hadn't even been married a month, and Rinoa wanted him all to herself on his first birthday as her husband. The big party could wait, if he could be talked into it at some point down the line.

Grabbing Angelo's leash, she took the dog for a walk, using that time to think about what kind of celebration she wanted to do for Squall and how to arrange it.


Squall finished with his work for the day, feeling slightly disappointed that no major disasters occurred that required his attention. Not even so much as a paper cut. He sighed, knowing that in his line of work, boredom was a good thing, yet still wishing that something would happen. Anything, just as long as it got him out of Balamb on August twenty-third.

Then Rinoa greeted him with a sweet smile and an ardent kiss the moment he walked through the door, and he began to rethink that.

"How was work?" She asked him softly, distracting him with another kiss as her busy fingers began working at his uniform tunic.

"Boring." Squall answered, smiling as he felt her mind brushing his, her intentions plain.

"I was only gone eight hours Rin," he sent in amusement, allowing her entrance.

"Eight long, lonely hours, with me wishing you were home to finish what you started this morning." Rinoa sent, fingers trailing lightly up his bare chest after undoing the last button on his shirt.

Squall paused, "I thought you were going to talk to Dr. Kadowaki about working as her assistant?"

Rinoa sighed, "She was too busy to do it today. We set up an appointment for tomorrow."

"Now hush," she added mentally. "I need my husband right now."

Squall almost laughed at that, but held off. She was telling him to hush? It wasn't too long ago that she despaired of ever getting more than a couple of words out of him at a stretch. Then his amusement faded as Rinoa began trailing feathery light kisses down his neck and chest.

He couldn't help but respond to what she was doing, her desire fed into him and kindled his own passion. Not that he needed much encouragement in that area anyway. Squall threaded his fingers through her dark, silky hair and gave himself up to it, to her, kissing her deeply.

He melded his lips to hers, tasting her sweetness as his tongue swept in to tease and tantalize. Thoughts and emotions flowed between them, as their bodies, minds and hearts became one. As always, Squall lost himself in her, swept away on the tide of passion as he made love with her, and he knew she felt the same.

And as always, when they made love, magic happened.

He felt the slow build as he loved her, stoked the tension with each stroke, kiss, caress, and felt his body answering hers in kind. He ushered it along, setting a pace that built to a powerful, mutually satisfying release, leaving them both shuddering in its wake. Leaving Rinoa's eyes glowing an incandescent gold as a result of that power.

"So," Squall smiled down at her, "How was your day?"

Rinoa reached up and stroked her fingers through his hair, causing him to sigh and close his eyes at the sensation. Then he bent forward and gave her a soft, sweet kiss.

"Well," She finally answered, "aside from pestering Dr. Kadowaki, it was boring and lonely."

"Well, I'm sure she'll keep you busy," Squall said. Rinoa opened her mouth to reply when an audible growl from Squall's midsection surprised her into a laugh instead. His soft laugh echoed hers.

"I guess I should do something about dinner, shouldn't I?" Rinoa asked him.

"Should I be worried?" Squall asked her in turn, eyes twinkling.

"Oh, stop!" Rinoa said, smacking his backside lightly. She pouted until Squall kissed her again, this time with an equal measure of sweetness and heat. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, letting him feel how happy she was, and how much she loved him.

"How about I help you?" Squall asked her.

"Okay." She answered. Squall obligingly moved off of her, causing Rinoa to sigh as they disengaged from each other physically.

She lay on the bed for a moment watching him dress, and feeling his amusement at her fascination.

"Are you going to get dressed?" Squall sent as he pulled on a t-shirt. "Or are you going to keep staring at me like a hungry lioness? You keep doing that, I'll have to jump back into bed with you and we'll go hungry."

"I'm sorry, I just can't get enough of your sexy self." Rinoa sent, smiling.

"Well," Squall said, stalking back to the bed, eyes intense. "If you want more of my sexy self, I need to refuel. Otherwise you'll wear me away to nothing, and how sexy would that be?"

Upon reaching the bed, he leaned over it and Rinoa, placing his hands on either side of her body. Then he bent down and gave her a breath-stealing kiss.

When they came up for air, Rinoa said smugly, "I don't hear you complaining."

Straightening up, Squall took both of her hands and urged her to her feet, saying, "And you won't either. In fact," he added with a wolfish grin that would have done Irvine credit, "if you cook me dinner naked, I'll never complain again!"

Rinoa burst out laughing, then asked him archly, "promise?"


"Thanks for taking lunch with me Quistis." Rinoa said as they picked out their table in the cafeteria. She would have liked to go into Balamb and her favorite café, but Quistis only had an hour.

"Thanks for inviting me. Is everything going okay between you and Squall?" Quistis asked. Then she laughed quietly as Rinoa's cheeks turned pink. Obviously, things for the newlyweds were going pretty well, if one went by Rinoa's blush.

Squall wasn't quite as obvious, at least not to those who didn't know him well, but to those who did, his happiness was plain to see as well. Quistis couldn't be more thrilled for the both of them.

"Oh, yes… they're going wonderfully." Rinoa said, starting to take a bite of her lunch.

"Glad to hear it." Quistis said.

"I am a little worried about one thing though." Rinoa said with a frown.

"Oh? What is it?" Quistis asked her, concerned.

"Well, we've been together now for about three years and…. well, I've never had the chance to celebrate Squall's birthday with him. Can you make sure he doesn't get sent off somewhere this year?" Rinoa asked, biting her lip.

"I don't actually have much control over that Rinoa. It's usually between Squall and Cid as to who gets assigned where." Quistis answered her.

Rinoa sighed, saying sadly, "So he's doing it deliberately."

"Doing what?" Quistis asked her, concerned.

"Making sure he's off somewhere, using his job as an excuse to avoid celebrating his birthday." Rinoa picked at her lunch dispiritedly, wondering if he'd do the same thing again this year. Wondering how she could change that.

Quistis gave her a look full of sympathy, "he's always done that."

"Why?" Rinoa asked.

Quistis shrugged, "as you know, he isn't terribly forthcoming concerning things like that."

Rinoa snorted ruefully, "I know." Then she sighed, "I wish I knew how to prevent that from happening this year."

"Hmm," Quistis paused, frowning in concentration. "Maybe I can have a talk with Headmaster Cid about it."

Rinoa smiled brilliantly at her and sighed, "Oh, would you? I know Cid's a nice man, but I …I don't know… I don't want to interfere in Squall's work and I'd just feel awkward asking Cid something like that. And what if something really important comes up that only Squall can handle?"

"I wouldn't worry too much about that Rinoa, nothing much is going on anyway. In fact," Quistis laughed, "I think that was why he seemed so concerned about who was doing what and if there was anything that might need his attention yesterday."

Rinoa's expression darkened at this and she grumbled, "You know, I'm trying really hard not to take this personally…"

Quistis reached over and covered Rinoa's hand with her own and urged her, "Please don't. He's always been like this about his birthday. Just keep being your sweet, loving self and he'll come around. I know he will."

Rinoa sighed again, "If you say so." She pushed her lunch around again and ventured to take another bite of the cooling meal.

"I know so. He's already grown well beyond what he was like when you first met him." Quistis said.

"I didn't set out to try and change him," Rinoa said, frowning again. She really didn't. That sort of thing rarely worked anyway. If you couldn't love someone the way they were, there was no point in trying to change them into someone that you could love.

"You didn't. He changed himself. You loved him out of his shell Rinoa." Quistis smiled at her, and added, "keep doing what you're doing, and be patient with him. It's worked so far, hasn't it?"

"Yes." Rinoa replied, smiling at the memory of how well her patience had already been rewarded lately.

"Great! Maybe you won't have to do anything at all and you'll have him to yourself anyway." Quistis said.

"But, what if something does happen and he gets called out?" Rinoa asked, her apprehension returning.

"Leave that to me." Quistis said. Then she gave Rinoa a conspiratorial smile and a wink.


Squall checked his schedule just as he had daily, frowning at the date that was approaching rapidly. Still nothing going on, though oddly, that didn't bother him quite as much as it had at the beginning of the month. Nor did the prospect of being home with Rinoa on his birthday.

Not entirely, at any rate. She'd been so sweet to him these last couple of weeks; he was beginning to feel like a selfish jerk, even though he hadn't actually done anything yet. Leaving her alone for yet another year, having to see those big brown eyes fill with unshed tears of worry and fear for him as he left…

Squall sighed. No, he was right to feel like a selfish jerk. He'd been monstrously unfair to her regarding his birthday issues. He wouldn't even talk to her about it. He couldn't. It was just too stupid to be believed. And while she could have simply plucked it out of his mind if she so desired, the fact that she respected his privacy and did not simply made things worse for him.

He was stuck. He was coming to the realization that he really didn't want to go anywhere and leave Rinoa alone on yet another birthday, this one doubly special, as it was his first as her husband. And yet, at the same time, he really didn't want to celebrate it either. What was there to celebrate anyway? The whole concept of celebrating the day that you were born was ludicrous (happy birthday Squall, you survived one more year! Yay! Ugh.). And besides that, Squall simply hated parties.

No, if he was stuck at home, maybe he'd just take off with Rinoa and spend the evening out with her or something. He could handle that. In fact…

RRRIIINGG!

Squall suppressed a sigh and answered his phone. "Yes?"

"Squall?" Headmaster Cid's voice came over the handset. "Could you come up to my office?"

"Yes, sir. I'll be right there." Squall said, getting up, wondering as he did what Cid wanted from him.

It didn't take long for him to find out. The door to Cid's office was open and Squall didn't even have to knock when Cid bade him to enter.

"You wanted to see me sir?" Squall asked, entering the room and stopping in front of the headmaster's desk at parade rest, alert and ready.

"Yes Squall, I did." Cid acknowledged, then opened the center drawer of his desk and pulled out a folder, adding, "I have an assignment for you." With that, he dropped the folder on his desk and pushed it toward Squall.

An assignment? But there wasn't anything pending, no prospective hires, NOTHING… Squall hesitated a moment, staring at the folder and feeling his heart sink lower and lower as he did. Now that he had exactly what thought he wanted staring him in the face, he realized that it wasn't what he wanted at all.

Be careful what you wish for… the proverb leaped into his mind as he slowly reached his hand out to take the folder.

He opened it, intending to read the prospectus, when Cid said, "I just received this today, and you were specifically requested. Its short term, just one week, but challenging. Enough, I think, to offer a break in the monotony for you at any rate."

Squall didn't reply. He simply read the contents of the folder with no sign of his feelings aside from a slight frown knitting his eyebrows. He was too professional to display his disappointment at being sent off just as he was realizing that he really didn't want to go after all. A week without Rinoa? Not his idea of a good time, that was for sure.

Still, it was his job, and Cid had assigned this particular hire to him. Then he narrowed his eyes. It didn't appear to be that difficult of an assignment either, leading him to wonder why they needed him when just about any SeeD would do.

Oh well, at least he shouldn't have too much trouble getting it over with and getting home. Then he remembered something, and only just managed not to smile as he did.

"Squall?" Cid asked, "Do you have any questions?"

"No sir. But I do have a request." Squall answered.

"What is it?" Cid asked him curiously.

"I would like to bring Rinoa along as tactical support." Squall answered.

Cid's jaw dropped and he wondered for a moment if Squall was onto his scheme. He only just managed to pull himself together without (he hoped) giving anything away.

"Squall, Rinoa's not a SeeD. It goes counter to SeeD protocol to bring close family members and spouses along on missions." Cid said, attempting to discourage him.

"I know. But Rinoa's also a member of Garden's infirmary staff, and as such her presence fits within standard mission parameters. Her relationship to me is irrelevant. And as she will be acting in a supporting capacity only, the fact that she is not a SeeD is also irrelevant." Squall stated.

Cid's jaw clicked shut as he considered that. Then he nodded.

"Very well. You both ship out in three days."

Squall saluted smartly and said, "Yes sir."

He turned and left the office, taking the folder with him. Cid watched him go, lips twitching at the corners. Then he got up, closed the door, and returned to his desk, picking up the phone and dialing a number.

"Quistis?" He spoke into the handset. "I just spoke to Squall, and he's thrown a little bit of a…well I wouldn't call it a wrench, really, more of a wrinkle, into our plans. He's requested Rinoa as his tactical support for this assignment."

He laughed at Quistis' indistinct response and said, "Yes, I think it'll work out even better than we'd planned."

He rang off soon after and returned his gaze to the door that Squall had just exited through, eyes twinkling and a smile playing about his lips. Canny though his young commander might be (and Cid ought to know, he'd lost at chess with him enough), it was thoroughly amusing to think of Squall being outmaneuvered by his wife.


Rinoa pulled the results from her latest cooking attempt from Quistis' oven and studied it dubiously. It looked okay, it wasn't burned anyway, but…

"Is it supposed to look like that Quistis?" Rinoa asked, biting her lip.

The item in question was a cake, Rinoa's third attempt since the beginning of the month. Quistis had been patiently teaching her how to bake, and so far she was making progress, but it was frustratingly slow.

Quistis touched the top of the cake lightly and frowned when it didn't spring back like it should have. It was properly browned, but it seemed….flat.

"Well, it smells okay, and you didn't burn it," Quistis said, frowning. Then she took a toothpick and poked it into the center of the cake. She studied the toothpick when she removed it, and then set it aside.

"I got the timing right, didn't I?" Rinoa asked.

"Yes…" Quistis said, setting the pan aside to cool. "It looks like it might have fallen though. We'll see how it turned out when it's cooled."

"Fallen? What do you mean?" Rinoa asked.

"I'm sure it'll taste okay Rinoa, but are you certain that you even want to do a cake?" Quistis asked her.

"Well… I don't…. I mean, isn't a birthday supposed to have a cake?" Rinoa replied, puzzled.

"Not really. If it's your birthday, you can have anything you want. That's the whole point. Do you even know if Squall wants a cake or what kind he likes?" Quistis responded.

Rinoa fell silent, thinking, then she finally answered in a small voice, "No, I don't."

She sighed and left the kitchen and sat down at the small table in Quistis' dining room. She thought back at all the times that she'd managed to persuade Squall to attend his friends' birthday parties (and they were fewer than she'd thought, though more than there had been in the past). And she really couldn't remember him displaying any interest in the cakes that had been served. He hadn't avoided them completely but also didn't appear to have cared one way or the other about them. In short, Squall didn't seem care much for sweets.

That part she did remember him telling her about.

"Now that I think about it," Rinoa groaned, "I'm not even sure he likes cake."

"Well then," Quistis said encouragingly, "Maybe you should fix something that he does like."

"Yeah," Rinoa sighed. "No sense in going to the trouble to bake and frost a cake if he's not going to eat it or anything like that…"

"Well, I'm sure he'll appreciate the effort anyway," Quistis said, while thinking privately that he damned well better…. or he'd answer to her.

"Yeah…" Rinoa began, then Quistis' phone rang.

She excused herself to go answer it while Rinoa pondered her somewhat minor dilemma. In the back of her mind, she sensed Squall thinking about something that seemed to bother him but he was shielding so she didn't know what it was. Whatever it was, he appeared to have decided something because that sense of disquiet from him faded.

She wondered what she would do, if a cake weren't in the cards. In truth, she was a little relieved; cakes, even ones made from a boxed mix, weren't all that easy to make. Not for her anyway. Oh, she could read and follow directions just fine. But for some reason she'd ended up with one cake burned, another only half-baked, and this third one…she got up and went into the kitchen, checking it. Yup. It was a brick.

She leaned against the kitchen counter with a sigh, thinking about what Squall might like instead.

Quistis found her there and said, "That was Cid. Mission Zero is a go. And," she added, eyes twinkling from the conspiratorial smile she wore, "Squall asked Cid to include you as tactical support."

Rinoa looked up at her, startled, and couldn't stop a huge smile from spreading across her face. "Really?"

"Really. Don't worry about the cake Rin. He's all yours regardless." Quistis grinned at her.

Rinoa laughed at that, then suddenly remembered something. Squall's move to include her on this latest mission of his reminded her of the occasion that brought him to make that promise to her. She seemed to remember chocolate chip cookies being involved in that situation in some fashion (though her memory was a little fuzzy on that…all she remembered with any clarity was their lovemaking that night).

She did remember however, how impressed he'd been that she had, with Ellone's help of course, managed to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies for him. And he'd enjoyed them, and her, thoroughly. Then she had it. Forget the cake. She'd bake him a cookie instead. A big cookie.

"Hey, Quistis? I have an idea…"